Evolution Of Archaeology
Where Did Archaeology Originate?
Modern archaeologists study human culture through the physical remains of the past. They count, weigh and categorize artifacts, and try to understand their purpose and meaning.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1798 invasion of Egypt ushered in a new era of archaeological digs. French academic Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone, opening up Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The Renaissance Humanists
In the 17th and 18th centuries wealthy gentleman scholars, or antiquarians, revelled in collecting classical art objects for their drawing rooms. They also began to conduct some of the first systematic archaeological investigations.
Earlier, the 5th century BCE Greek historian Herodotus had been an early investigator and an examiner of artifacts. King Nabonidus of the Neo-Babylonian Empire excavated and surveyed temples built a millennium before his reign, and the Egyptian noble Khaemweset investigated, studied and restored tombs that predated him by some 1,400 years (Ashmore and Sharer 2014).
The work of Schliemann in Troy and Herculaneum, Biliotti at Samothrace and Petrie at Pompeii laid down much of the basis for modern archaeological recording. Petrie developed a method of dating layers in excavations and mentored and trained a generation of Egyptologists including Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of 14th century BCE pharaoh Tutankhamun.
The Age of Exploration
Archaeology evolved from a leisure activity pursued by the wealthy to a worldwide scientific discipline. In developed and developing nations alike, archaeological work is done by individuals from a wide range of social backgrounds.
The origins of archaeological science can be traced to the 17th and 18th centuries CE when gentleman scholars, also known as antiquarians, began to collect classical art objects. These men were passionate about the physical remains of ancient civilizations and believed they had an important role to play in bringing history back to life.
They used their interest in artifacts to dig for them, using the context of an object to figure out what it meant. For example, a spear point found lodged in the ribs of a bison established that humans had been in North America since the Ice Age.
The Age of Discovery
In the late 19th and into the 20th centuries most archaeological field work in Mexico and South America was undertaken by teams that originated, initially at least, from western Europe and, later, from North American universities. These teams were largely self-funded and made arrangements with host nation governments on a case-by-case basis.
In both Britain and the US, private learned societies also played a significant role in the early development of archaeology (see Ganger 2014).
Interest in the past is not new, of course. Ancient kings and other leaders often collected ancient artifacts or rebuilt monuments and buildings to showcase their own past glories. In addition, the 5th-century BCE Greek historian Herodotus was one of the first scholars to systematically examine and record archaeological remains.
The Age of Science
As archaeology became an academic discipline, it moved away from its roots in treasure hunting and art collecting. It also became increasingly international as museums began to sponsor detailed archaeological work in all regions of the world, and universities offered courses in archaeology.
But archaeology still has its origins in history, particularly the history of man. King Nabonidus of Babylon excavated and surveyed temples built more than a millennium earlier under his predecessors, and 5th century BCE Greek historian Herodotus was an early examiner of art objects.
English antiquarians, such as John Leland and William Camden, conducted topographical surveys of their country’s countryside, recording landmarks and ancient monuments. And Jean-Francois Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian writing opened up a whole new world of knowledge. As a result, it’s possible that the field of archaeology is actually older than history itself.
The Age of Industry
In Western Europe some dilettanti in the 14th and 15th centuries reveled in digging up ancient art objects for the decoration of their drawing rooms. These activities were a precursor to archaeological excavation.
Hectic digging into mounds for the purpose of finding works of art gave way, starting in the 1840s, to planned and carefully controlled excavation by such men as Paul-Emile Botta at Nineveh and Khorsabad and Austen Henry Layard at Nimrud, Kuyunjik, Nabi Yunus and elsewhere. These efforts also led to the deciphering of Mesopotamian cuneiform writing.
Foreign archaeology in the Americas started later than in the Old World. Large-scale American involvement was delayed by the demands of American industrialization. Arrangements to excavate, survey and transport materials required negotiating with governments at many levels, both national and local.